James A Garfield is not a name that springs to mind when we most Americans think about the country’s Presidents. While Garfield had a long and successful career as a Congressman, and also as a Civil War general, his short term in office doesn’t resonate like Kennedy's Camelot does.
On Monday, March 10, at 7:30 pm, Newtown Historical Society will examine Garfield’s career in “The President and The Madman.” Gordon Williams will present the program at Newtown Meeting House, 31 Main Street.
James Garfield actually fulfilled the presidential stereotype by being born in a log cabin in Ohio in 1831. His father died when he was 18 months old, leaving the family in relative poverty. Using the rudimentary education at local schools, Garfield was able to work his way through several years in college, finally graduating from Williams in 1856.
He was an active minister of the Disciple of Christ church, and reportedly an effective preacher. Always a religious man, he is reported to have said when he resigned his ministry after election as President, “I resign the highest office in the land to become President.”
He received a commission as Lieutenant Colonel shortly after the Civil War began, and even with little military training he was successful enough to be brevetted Brigadier General, and was appointed as Chief of Staff to General Rosencrans. He remained loyal to Rosencrans even after he fell into disfavor.
First elected to Congress in 1862 while still in the military, Garfield resigned his commission to take his seat full time in 1863. He went on to serve nine terms in Congress. When the Republican convention stalemated in 1880, he became the compromise candidate for President.
Meanwhile, Charles Guiteau was both a disappointed office seeker and a man who believed he was directed by God. His vision of God’s direction was to kill the President.
Guiteau began to stalk Garfield, and on July 2, 1881, less than four months after Garfield’s inauguration, Guiteau put two bullets in Garfield's back.
Although the shots were not fatal — Garfield lived for 80 days, and many historians believe Garfield died from his medical care rather than the actual shooting — he was unable to govern. He served the second shortest term in this country’s history.
Gordon Williams is a retired history teacher, and a former Teacher of the Year in Trumbull. He is also a past president of Newtown Historical Society. He has spoken many times before local groups, including an annual talk for the Society.
Newtown Historical Society programs are free and open to the public.
For more information, visit www.newtownhistory.org or call 203-426-5937.